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Japanese government to ease radioactive waste rules

TOKYO — Japan's Environment Ministry has formulated draft rules allowing local governments to store designated waste contaminated with radioactive substances from the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant at separate locations under certain criteria.

Debate on how to dispose of such waste was at a standstill, but the draft rules are expected to move the issue a step forward. The rules also allow local governments to lift designations on radioactive waste at their own discretion, if radioactive levels drop below government standards.

According to the draft rules, the government will maintain its basic policy that Tochigi, Chiba, Ibaraki, Miyagi and Gunma prefectures, which have huge amounts of designated waste, should consolidate and store the waste at one location within each prefecture. But the rules will also allow designated waste in which the density level of radioactive substances has dropped, or is expected to drop in the near future, to be stored at separate locations, depending on conditions.

The draft rules also stipulate that the Environment Ministry and local governments will jointly deliberate on whether to lift the designation on waste in which the level of radioactivity has fallen below the standards. They also say the costs of disposing of waste that has been removed from the category of designated waste will be covered by the central government.

At present, 12 prefectures, including Fukushima, Tochigi and Chiba, hold a total of 170,000 tons of designated waste.

Radioactive cesium is used to measure the density level of radioactive substances, and the half-life of one type of cesium, cesium-134, is about two years. Though at least 15 percent of designated waste contains a level of radioactivity below government standards, so far it cannot be removed from the category of designated waste because rules for such a process do not exist.

Under the draft rules, local governments can consult with the Environment Ministry to decide whether designated waste could be stored at separate locations or whether the designation on waste that contains radioactive levels below the standard should be lifted.

After a designation is lifted, waste can be disposed of in an ordinary manner, with the central government shouldering the cost.

In the case of Ibaraki Prefecture, a total of about 3,500 tons of designated waste is stored in 14 municipalities. The radioactivity of much of it is relatively low, with 2,500 tons, or 70 percent, apparently below official standards.

The Environment Ministry on Thursday afternoon presented the draft rules at a meeting with representatives of the prefecture and the 14 municipalities storing designated waste to seek their approval. The ministry also plans to present the rules to other prefectures.
 

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